"Half-hanged Mary" was Mary Webster, who was accused of witchcraft in the 1680s in a Puritan town in Massachusetts and hanged from a tree - where, according to one of the several surviving accounts, she was left all night. It is known that when she was cut down she was still alive, since she lived for another fourteen years.
One of Mary Webster’s descendants is the now well-known Canadian novelist and poet, Margaret Atwood, who wrote a poem, “Half-Hanged Mary,” (1995) about her notorious ancestor. Atwood’s poem is in sections, each chronicling an hour of Mary’s hanging from the tree, beginning at 7 at night and concluding at 8 the next morning.
by Margaret Atwood
Rumour was loose in the air
hunting for some neck to land on.
I was milking the cow,
the barn door open to the sunset.
I didn't feel the aimed word hit
and go in like a soft bullet.
I didn't feel the smashed flesh
closing over it like water
over a thrown stone.
I was hanged for living alone
for having blue eyes and a sunburned skin,
tattered skirts, few buttons,
a weedy farm in my own name,
and a surefire cure for warts;
Oh yes, and breasts,
and a sweet pear hidden in my body.
Whenever there's talk of demons
these come in handy.
The rope was an improvisation.
With time they'd have thought of axes.
Up I go like a windfall in reverse,
a blackened apple stuck back onto the tree.
Trussed hands, rag in my mouth,
a flag raised to salute the moon,
old bone-faced goddess, old original,
who once took blood in return for food.
The men of the town stalk homeward,
excited by their show of hate,
their own evil turned inside out like a glove,
and me wearing it.
The bonnets come to stare,
the dark skirts also,
the upturned faces in between,
mouths closed so tight they're lipless.
I can see down into their eyeholes
and nostrils. I can see their fear.
You were my friend, you too.
I cured your baby, Mrs.,
and flushed yours out of you,
Non-wife, to save your life.
Help me down? You don't dare.
I might rub off on you,
like soot or gossip. Birds
of a feather burn together,
though as a rule ravens are singular.
In a gathering like this one
the safe place is the background,
pretending you can't dance,
the safe stance pointing a finger.
I understand. You can't spare
anything, a hand, a piece of bread, a shawl
against the cold,
a good word. Lord
knows there isn't much
to go around. You need it all.
Well God, now that I'm up here
with maybe some time to kill
away from the daily
fingerwork, legwork, work
at the hen level,
we can continue our quarrel,
the one about free will.
Is it my choice that I'm dangling
like a turkey's wattles from his
more then indifferent tree?
If Nature is Your alphabet,
what letter is this rope?
Does my twisting body spell out Grace?
I hurt, therefore I am.
Faith, Charity, and Hope
are three dead angels
falling like meteors or
burning owls across
the profound blank sky of Your face.
My throat is taut against the rope
choking off words and air;
I'm reduced to knotted muscle.
Blood bulges in my skull,
my clenched teeth hold it in;
I bite down on despair
Death sits on my shoulder like a crow
waiting for my squeezed beet
of a heart to burst
so he can eat my eyes
or like a judge
muttering about sluts and punishment
and licking his lips
or like a dark angel
insidious in his glossy feathers
whispering to me to be easy
on myself. To breathe out finally.
Trust me, he says, caressing
me. Why suffer?
A temptation, to sink down
into these definitions.
To become a martyr in reverse,
or food, or trash.
To give up my own words for myself,
my own refusals.
To give up knowing.
To give up pain.
To let go.
Out of my mouths is coming, at some
distance from me, a thin gnawing sound
which you could confuse with prayer except that
praying is not constrained.
Or is it, Lord?
Maybe it’s more like being strangled
than I once thought. Maybe it’s
a gasp for air, prayer.
Did those men at Pentecost
want flames to shoot out of their heads?
Did they ask to be tossed
on the ground, gabbling like holy poultry,
As mine are, as mine are.
There is only one prayer; it is not
the knees in the clean nightgown
on the hooked rug.
I want this, I want that.
Oh far beyond.
Call it Please. Call it Mercy.
Call it Not yet, not yet,
as Heaven threatens to explode
inwards in fire and shredded flesh, and the angels caw.
wind seethes in the leaves around
me the trees exude night
birds night birds yell inside
my ears like stabbed hearts my heart
stutters in my fluttering cloth
body I dangle with strength
going out of the wind seethes
in my body tattering
the words I clench
my fists hold No
talisman or silver disc my lungs
flail as if drowning I call
on you as witness I did
no crime I was born I have borne I
bear I will be born this is
a crime I will not
acknowledge leaves and wind
hold on to me
I will not give in
Sun comes up, huge and blaring,
no longer a simile for God.
Wrong address. I’ve been out there.
Time is relative, let me tell you
I have lived a millennium.
I would like to say my hair turned white
overnight, but it didn’t.
Instead it was my heart;
bleached out like meat in water.
Also, I’m about three inches taller.
This is what happens when you drift in space
listening to the gospel
of the red hot stars.
Pinpoints of infinity riddle my brain,
a revelation of deafness.
At the end of my rope
I testify to silence.
Don’t say I’m not grateful.
Most will only have one death.
I will have two.
When they came to harvest my corpse
(open your mouth, close your eyes)
cut my body from the rope,
I was still alive.
Tough luck, folks,
I know the law:
you can’t execute me twice
for the same thing. How nice.
I fell to the clover, breathed it in,
and bared my teeth at them
in a filthy grin.
You can imagine how that went over.
Now I only need to look
out at them through my sky-blue eyes.
They see their own ill will
staring them in the forehead
and turn tail.
Before, I was not a witch.
But now I am one.
My body of skin waxes and wanes
around my true body,
a tender nimbus.
I skitter over the paths and fields,
mumbling to myself like crazy,
mouth full of juicy adjectives
and purple berries.
The townsfolk dive headfirst into the bushes
to get out of my way.
My first death orbits my head,
an ambiguous nimbus,
medallion of my ordeal.
No one crosses that circle.
Having been hanged for something
I never said,
I can now say anything I can say.
Holiness gleams on my dirty fingers,
I eat flowers and dung,
two forms of the same thing, I eat mice
and give thanks, blasphemies
gleam and burst in my wake
like lovely bubbles.
I speak in tongues,
my audience is owls.
My audience is God,
because who the hell else could understand me?
The words boil out of me,
coil after coil of sinuous possibility.
The cosmos unravels from my mouth,
all fullness, all vacancy.
If I May Have It
If I may have it when it's dead
I will contented be;
If just as soon as breath is out
It shall belong to me,
Until they lock it in the grave,
'Tis bliss I cannot weigh,
For though they lock thee in the grave,
Myself can hold the key.
Think of it, lover! I and thee
Permitted face to face to be;
After a life, a death we'll say, -
For death was that, but this is thee.
The State Journal, August 23, 1878.
Suicide in Saline County.
A correspondent of the Bazoo at Marshall, Saline county, gives an account of the suicide of Miss Hattie Miller, daughter of J. K. Miller, a respectable farmer of Grand Pass township, on Friday last. She was a beautiful, fascinating young lady of about eighteen years, well beloved by all who knew her--except one. The cause of her self-destruction seems to have been unrequited love. On the morning of the suicide she got up in her usual cheerful, merry spirit and there was nothing in her manner that would have led any one to suppose that in three hours she would be dead, and that at her own hands.
She had been keeping company with a young man by the name of Charles Miller, and after breakfast they had a short interview which ended in an unpleasant manner. Shortly after she said to her sister, "tell papa I have swallowed strychnine" and went to her room. In a few minutes she was dead. After taking the poison she wrote the following and left it on her table:
Darling Mother:--I come to the conclusion that I cannot live any longer happy. If you want to know anything go to Charley Miller; he can tell you all. I ask forgiveness of all the children and Papa. I know what fate I will meet--death; but that is nothing to this world's troubles. Tell Aunt Liza I am thankful for all the good advice she has given me. I know it will be a great trouble to you, Ma; but try and bear it. Ma, don't grieve for me. Give everything I have to Nannie, and ask her to send Bigger's ring home. Give my pig to Addie. Ask Charlie to forgive me. I forgive him with all my heart. Tell him for his mother's sake not to be so fickle-minded. It is with regret I write this, and take my own life; but I will meet Johnnie.
Bury me at the side of Johnnie, and I hope we will be the only ones that will commit such an act. My dying love to all. Ask Papa to forgive me. O, forgive me.
Go, Ma, tell Aunt Nancy Gauldin everything. I am going to take some strychnine.
The note was folded and addressed as follows:
To my darling mother and father, and sisters and brothers. Write to Maggie Spears. Tell her all, and write to Cousin Gabe.
She had a cousin, Johnnie, referred to in the above, who committed suicide a few months ago, because of unrequited love.
She was buried as requested. The grief stricken parents and friends have the sympathy of all who knew them.
The curtains were half drawn, the floor was swept
And strewn with rushes, rosemary and may
Lay thick upon the bed on which I lay,
Where through the lattice ivy-shadows crept.
He leaned above me, thinking that I slept
And could not hear him; but I heard him say,
‘Poor child, poor child’: and as he turned away
Came a deep silence, and I knew he wept.
He did not touch the shroud, or raise the fold
That hid my face, or take my hand in his,
Or ruffle the smooth pillows for my head:
He did not love me living; but once dead
He pitied me; and very sweet it is
To know he still is warm though I am cold.
After several years spent combing through the newspaper archives of pre-1920 Missouri, I have read countless stories of death. Some brought about by accidental circumstances - a frightened horse, venturing too far into the murky waters while bathing, coal oil fire starters, or falling asleep in the company of a train; while others faced death on their own terms by procuring a vial of arsenic, a swallow of carbolic acid, or a leap from great heights. The stories of Missouri's unremarkable, and mostly forgettable, souls have resided in a dark file on my computer, after being deemed too disturbing to be shared with my FB page audience (aside from Morbid Mondays, of course). The names of the dead, whether unintentional or deliberate, have been buried by the passage of time, only to be dug up from the archives and passed through my mind...wondering what lives they led before greeting Death.
These stories fascinate me with a morbid curiosity; the way a child feels when presented with the trappings of a present-day funeral. Sometimes I skim through an obituary and silently congratulate the deceased for a life well-lived. Others, like the sudden death of a young mother with five children and a newly widowed husband who hasn't a clue what to do with them, pull me into their story and lead a search for how the family survived after such a loss.
As a genealogist, I am constantly reminded that the names of the long ago deceased are someone's people. Ancestors to many who, most likely, still reside in Missouri and may stumble upon these posts by chance only to be met with a gruesomely described account of death. To soften this blow, I will include any useful information (burial location, other life details...) with my posts, when available.
"Cineri gloria sera venit" ~ Fame comes too late to the dead.
This is my humble effort to offer a moment of remembrance for those who have slipped quietly through time.